Ex-state IT specialist claims he removed documents from Gov. Deal ethics file

Atlanta Journal-Constitution staff writer Aaron Gould Sheinin and Channel 2 Action News reporter Jodie Fleischer contributed to this article.

How we got the story

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has closely followed the goings on at the state’s ethics commission, including a shakeup at the top and its handling of allegations against Gov. Nathan Deal that he misused campaign funds during the 2010 election cycle. Recent stories, based on court documents and interviews, have reported accusations that the executive director of the commission, Holly LaBerge, improperly intervened in Deal’s case; that aides to the governor approached LaBerge about heading the commission a month before the position was open and while the commission was investigating the governor; and that the staff attorney has sworn that the commission’s chairman pressured her to settle the governor’s case. In today’s story, a former computer specialist says that he altered documents in the governor’s case file at the direction of LaBerge and her deputy.

A former state IT specialist who is a key player behind the ethics questions swirling around Gov. Nathan Deal’s office said in an interview that he altered and removed dozens of documents in the governor’s case file as an investigation into his potential campaign problems was pending.

John Hair’s comments raise new concerns about the independence of the ethics agency charged with holding elected officials accountable in its review of five complaints accusing Deal of misusing campaign funds in his 2010 election. The commission ultimately levied a $3,350 penalty against the governor, down from the $70,000 originally recommended.

Hair told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News that on nearly 20 different occasions last year he removed and condensed documents from the case file or superimposed new data over original files. He said he doesn’t know what he altered because he didn’t scrutinize the files, but that he believes the data included financial information.

The governor has said he received no special treatment from the commission and blasted the AJC for its coverage of the issue. Attorneys for Deal and ethics commission Executive Director Holly LaBerge both strongly disputed Hair’s claims, and Deal’s lawyer called Hair a “disgruntled former employee.”

The AJC previously reported that Hair said in sworn testimony that he was fired when he refused a request from LaBerge to remove another document earlier this year. But Hair’s interview was the first time he revealed he previously removed and altered other data prior to that refusal.

He said in the interview that he was acting on orders from LaBerge and her top aide, Lisa Dentler, when he manipulated the files. Both declined to comment on Tuesday.

“They were asking me to manipulate records, plain and simple. Deleting information. I was asked to go onto the network and pull a certain document,” Hair said. “They had me remove documents under the case file under the understanding that I would receive documents to replace it. And I never did.”

Deal’s attorney, Randy Evans, said he’s not aware of any documents being removed from the file and that, aside from confidential information such as Social Security numbers or bank account information, there’s nothing in the file that needs to be hidden. He said the ethics commissioners who weighed Deal’s case saw all the documents with no redactions.

He said he doesn’t doubt that Hair deleted “extraneous” documents or removed duplicates. But he said he has kept a detailed catalog of the case file to “consistently make sure the documents are still intact.”

“Nothing of consequence, nothing material got deleted,” he said. “Any suggestion to the otherwise is untrue.”

The Georgia Attorney General’s Office, which is representing the ethics commission in whistle-blower suits filed by its former executive director and her deputy, also said it was notified that nothing was removed from the file. Spokeswoman Lauren Kane said Tuesday that the “comment accurately reflected what we’ve been told by our client.”

But Hair said the assertion that no files were removed from the document was “absolutely false.”

“There are missing files because I was there,” he said. “I’m the one who removed them.”

Hollie Manheimer of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation said removing or altering the files could run afoul of the state’s Record Retention Act, which requires certain public documents to remain unaltered.

Deal faces renewed scrutiny after the AJC's September report that Hair and Elisabeth Murray-Obertein, the commission's attorney, accused LaBerge of interfering with the Deal investigation, ordering documents involved in the investigation removed from the file and bragging about how Deal "owes" her for making the case go away.

LaBerge has denied those accusations in sworn testimony, and her attorney, Mike Brown, said Tuesday that his client never showed any favoritism toward the governor and never asked Hair or any other employees to alter any documents.

Since then, the newspaper has disclosed legal filings that showed two Republican members of the commission worked with the governor's office to tap LaBerge as executive director before the position became vacant and claims from the ethics commission's attorney that the panel's chairman pressured her to quietly settle cases against Deal.

Deal has said he would hardly recognize LaBerge, let alone feel as if he owes her anything. His office said it’s not unusual for a state agency to consult Deal’s aides over a possible hire, even if the commission was actively investigating Deal at the time.

The ethics commission, meanwhile, called for an independent investigation by an outside attorney to probe the claims against LaBerge. And a Georgia ethics watchdog asked state and federal officials to investigate whether Deal's office interfered with the commission's work.

Forensics experts routinely determine whether files were deleted and altered. Niall Cronnolly, president of Atlanta-based Eagle Investigative Services, said investigators can also sometimes recover files that were removed.

“If the computer is seized quickly or efficiently, then almost all the files can be recovered,” he said. “This is a process we do on a daily basis to undelete files.”

Hair, for his part, said he “took a stand” and refused a later request to remove documents after he attended a seminar on the state’s sunshine laws and a run-in with LaBerge. He said he overheard her boasting she helped the governor, a claim she has denied. He has now hired attorney Kim Worth and plans to file a lawsuit against the state.

“I realized I was being used as a tool to obstruct justice, to manipulate information and the truth,” Hair said. “It doesn’t get more plain as day than that.”